The grand theater of Meany Hall was filled with piano and operatic interludes Wednesday night. The sound came from the memorial of Bill Gerberding, the longest-serving president at the UW. The service, according to friends, was quite fitting.
In his 16-year presidency at the UW, Gerberding’s creative essence, and his love of music and words, clearly translated to his job. He was elected in 1979 during a time of budget cuts and general lack of funding. Former co-workers and friends said despite these early challenges, he used his creativity to lift the UW into a period of prosperity and success. By the time he left in 1995, the UW had expanded campus facilities, raised $284 million, and received four Nobel Prizes for the work of various faculty. The current administration building, which sits on the north side of Red Square, is named in his honor.
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Hubert Locke served on the search committee that recommended Gerberding to the Board of Regents 40 years ago and served as a faculty member during Gerberding’s tenure. During their years of work together, they became, in Locke’s words, “compatriots.”
“I watched him manage this beloved institution with firmness and affection,” Locke said. “He came to us with a clear vision of what great academic institutions look like.”
The memorial service held in his honor, however, focused not on Gerberding’s achievements as a public figure, but on him as a person.
The service was prepared by Gerberding himself “with intricacy,” said Marilyn Dunn, who served as the UW’s vice president for development and president of the UW foundation during the Gerberding administration. This was classic of Gerberding, his friends agreed, noting he called himself, “the world’s highest-paid editor.”
The program featured “Song without Words,”composed by Felix Mendelssohn, selected by Gerberding prior to his death, and performed by pianist Robin McCabe.
“Music was the ultimate [for him],” said Liza Gerberding, Bill Gerberding’s daughter. “So that had to be the last word. Everyone did a great job with their speeches, but no one could ever possibly say what the pieces said.”
During his life, Gerberding hated wearing tuxedos but was a stickler for ceremony, according to Fred Kleinschmidt, one of Gerberding’s longtime friends. According to those who eulogized him, he liked baseball as well as opera, worked hard, and treasured his wife and family.
Charles Young, who spoke at the event, knew Gerberding for about as long as anyone in attendance, except for Gerberding’s wife, Ruth. Young and Geberding had been friends for 56 years.
“I’ve had the opportunity to participate in many memorials with whom I’ve had the pleasure of working, playing, eating, and drinking,” Young said. “There is no one I will miss as much as Bill Gerberding.”
Young wasn’t the only one: There were seven speakers, including Bill Gates, and about 300 people in the audience.
“It is far from adequate,” Locke said of the memorial service. “But it must suffice for me to salute him as an extraordinary gift to this university, and I thank him for the gift of his friendship.”
Though this gift of friendship will exist only in the memories of those who knew him, there were many who knew him well, and are dedicated to ensuring his legacy lives on.
Speight Jenkins, the general director of the Seattle Opera, grew to know Gerberding as he attended an endless list of concerts.
“I want to say that I think many of you here know about Bill’s feeling about the hereafter,” Jenkins said. “And I have to make a very selfish statement: I hope he was wrong.”